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Alternative to Casinos: Labs

There has been a lot of local debate in Philadelphia recently about the pros and cons of bringing casinos to the city to generate tax and tourist revenue. I recently contributed some ideas to a listserv discussion about alternatives, which was started by Brion J. Shreffler. Brion proposed, in this article from the Green City Journal, that we build a soccer field instead.

Brion’s point is that the City should listen more to the people who live here, and that we should also be thinking about development that will improve their lives, not just provide more dead-end service jobs. I entirely agree. At some point, though, we have to propose reasonable alternatives if we don’t want casinos (and similar projects) to come to the City. Here were my thoughts in reply:

First off: I like the idea of a soccer field. The Vermonter in me likes the idea of big, green, open spaces. The hipster transplant in me likes the idea of supporting a less commercialized sport. But casinos have something that soccer fields don’t, and can’t, have: economic density.

What I mean is this. A soccer field requires you to create a huge open space, which you can’t put anything on top of. (I am assuming, of course, that this is an outdoor field.) So in order to make it profitable and generate economic growth — which I am assuming is at least one major goal here — you have to build outward. When you’re talking about building inside the city limits, that’s an issue. A casino, by contrast, can be as tall as you want, and every floor you put in adds another set of jobs, without increasing the geographical footprint. Casinos are open 24 hours a day. Casinos are places where people expect to spend a lot of money. All this adds up to exponentially higher revenue. So, even if I were a city councilman of the purest ilk, with only the public purpose in mind, I might still vote for a casino over a soccer field, knowing that improvements in quality of life generally follow economic growth, not the other way around. Of course, there are other factors to consider: revenue lost to the state is one, and the fact that casinos can’t really be expected to improve the neighborhood is another. No one could make that decision without looking at a lot of numbers very carefully.

So, if we’re seeking an alternative, we have a few goals (not necessarily in order of precedence): first, more economic density than a soccer field, i.e., more jobs and more cashflow in the same amount of space. Second, improving the quality of life for those who live and work in the area. Third, not losing revenue to the state, if possible. And it would be nice to avoid stagnation and brain-drain, too. These are a tough set of criteria to maximize simultaneously, for sure, but it’s not impossible.

My idea? Build commercial laboratory space. You can make a lab building as tall as a casino hotel, so long as you provide the right infrastructure (e.g., service elevators to move large, heavy equipment to all floors). Commercial labs provide jobs for people of all levels of education, from GED to Ph.D. This means there’s upward mobility for people who work in them, not just dead-end service jobs, and that people moving to the neighborhood will be diversely educated, combating brain-drain and “cultural stagnation.” The research performed by labs has the potential to be tremendously beneficial to the public, both locally and globally. And finally, laboratories reverse the pattern of revenue flow from local to state governments that casinos have: labs spend enormous amounts of money on research and manufacturing materials, and much of the money that pays for those materials comes from government grants and research contracts.

Building laboratory facilities has the potential to meet all of our goals, then (except for having grass around…sigh). And it would do a lot for the reputation of the city: imagine if Philadelphia was on the forefront of scientific research, instead of simply an inland spot to gamble. Plus, whenever the city needed contract research of its own, whether for studying traffic patterns or cleaning up river water, the money would stay here.

Of course, the devil is always in the details. There are probably many problems with this proposal, not the least of which may be the lack of city planners of purest ilk. Still, I think it’s a worthy idea, if for no other reason than that it highlights some of the issues involved. Any comments?


Written by whereofwecannotspeak

July 13, 2007 at 6:06 pm

Posted in Ideas

One Response

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  1. This is a pretty good idea, but I would advocate for something more…fun. How about this: a building full of networked computers optimized for LAN games. Now, I have never been much of a gamer, but to me, there are few things more fun than crowding into a computer lab with all of your friends and obliterating them in a good first-person shooter game! Philadelphia could set up such a business and charge local people by the game, by the hour, or whatever to come and play games with their friends. Think of it as going to the movies, only in an interactive way.

    So, this may sound ridiculous (and it is), but think about how much revenue could be generated by people hanging out all day and playing games with their friends — in essence, that is what a casino provides, right?.

    You also need a fair deal of expertise to run such a venture — network admins, system admins, maybe concessions people. The start-up capital for something like this would not be trivial, but given the long lifespan of today’s computer systems, it would work better now than ever before.

    Anyway, my crazy idea for the day. Nice post.


    October 24, 2007 at 7:00 pm

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